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Author Susan Grossey’s new crime novel depicts 1820s Cambridge

Cambridge-based author Susan Grossey, who has published seven historical crime novels set in London in the 1820s, is to publish the first in a series of five books set in Cambridge in the same decade.

Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell

The first of these, titled Ostler, introduces the series’ main protagonist, ex-soldier Gregory Hardiman. Gregory is enjoying the quiet life of an ostler at a Cambridge coaching inn, but when the inn’s cook is found drowned in the river in the spring of 1825, he finds himself caught up in the murky world of college life in the town.

As fine wines and precious artworks begin to disappear from the fictional St Clement’s College, Gregory navigates uneasily between the public world of the coaching inn and the hidden life behind the high walls of the college.

Then a new law requires the university to create a cadre of constables – but will Gregory take on the challenge?

Susan, who has also written a number of non-fiction books, says: “In the fiction world, I did a series of seven set in London.

“I belong to various crime book clubs, and I knew Richard Reynolds, the crime buyer at Heffers very well, and he kept saying, ‘Why don’t you do a Cambridge-set series – people love Cambridge locations’.

“So I did quite a bit of research as to what else was out there – because I didn’t want to just write what other people had written, and of course there’s the Grantchester series and then there’s other series set earlier…

“But, as in the London series, people aren’t interested in the 1820s – the late regency doesn’t get much attention and I couldn’t understand why, because from my point of view it’s the time period when everything’s happening; it’s the most important period in history for the things I’m interested in.

“So I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I could do a Cambridge series’, so this is the first one of those.”

Susan describes undertaking research in Cambridge as both easier and harder than she had imagined – easier because she was able to cycle everywhere, harder because it’s actually two separate histories that she had to understand: town and gown.

Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Ostler, which is due out in September, is the first in the planned five-book series, which is to run consecutively from 1825 to 1830.

“I’ve got the five plots sorted out,” Susan explains. “I’ve got the central issue for each book sorted out – I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re plotted, but I know what I’ll be covering.

“And because it’s going to be a series, I know I can drip-feed information about my central core characters, so I know a lot about them that isn’t appearing in book one, because I’m going to save that for books two to five.”

Susan says the book was about three years in the planning and she “started working on it seriously about a year and a half ago”.

“I had made two assumptions that turned out to be wrong, and they slowed me down,” she reveals. “First of all I thought, ‘Well because I know a lot about the 1820s from having written these other seven books in London, it’ll be easy because I know the 1820s’.

“But what I forgot, of course, is that Cambridge in those days was a bit of a backwater. The 1820s in London was far more advanced than the 1820s in Cambridge, so I had to go back a couple of decades in fashion and hobbies and social attitudes.

“So that was mistake number one, and mistake number two was I thought, ‘Well I’ve lived in Cambridge since 1992, I know all about Cambridge – I’ve been to the university, I know all about the university’ but of course you don’t.

“And you’ve got to research two sets of history because the town and the university were quite separate – and so I thought I’d have it all at my fingertips but actually I had to do a huge amount of new research, which slowed me down.”

Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Susan says that with her main character – the ostler – she wanted someone who “crosses the boundary between town and gown”.

“I couldn’t have anyone who was attached to a college because that pulls them first of all into a college and secondly into the university.

“I wanted someone who is free to move around town between the colleges, and an ostler – the person who takes care of the horses at an inn – is always moving around town, moving horses from inn to inn and that sort of thing.

“Then in 1825, because the town and the university to a certain extent became rather tired of the bad behaviour of undergraduates, a piece of legislation was passed which allowed the universities – at the time there was only Oxford and Cambridge – to appoint constables.

“University constables were created in 1825 as a disciplinary force, and we still have them in Cambridge. They got rid of them in Oxford in the ’70s.

“Twelve men were appointed and they were townsfolk, and I thought, ‘A-ha, that’s what my man could be’. So in the daytime he’s an ostler and three or four evenings a week he works as a university constable, so this gives him the movement that I need around town and into the university.”

But what of the seemingly forgotten 1820s? “Such a lot was happening then, and the areas I’m particularly interested in.

“In finance, they’d just introduced paper money, they’d just introduced cheque books, they’d just introduced share certificates and policing was developing…

“Cambridge didn’t have a police force back in the 1820s, that came in the 1830s. London got the Met Police in 1829. In justice, people didn’t have a defence in court; if you were accused of a crime, only the prosecution was allowed to speak – there was no such thing as a defence.

“That was changing, lawyers were starting to say, ‘We don’t think that’s terribly fair’. The death penalty was going out of fashion… it was such a busy time, because of course England was just coming out of the Napoleonic Wars so we were in a post-war period of growth.

“It was a fascinating time but people forget about it. I find it amazing.”

To avoid any potential problems, Susan created a fictional University of Cambridge college (St Clement’s) for the purposes of her book.

“I thought well of course people have heard of all the big ones. There were 17 colleges at the time, in the 1820s, but I don’t know what I want them to do in the future, and if I want someone to be dodgy in the college, as indeed they are in this first one, I didn’t want some rich college coming to sue me and saying, ‘You can’t say that about our lovely people’.

“So I thought I need to make one up; I had to get out the old maps and walk around Cambridge and try and figure out where there could have been a college, because of course Cambridge was very small, and I realised there was a bit of a gap behind St Clement’s Church, which is the Greek Orthodox church on Bridge Street.

“On Bridge Street there’s a church in between Côte Brasserie and the Bridge café, and behind there was Market Garden, and I thought, ‘Oh, we could just squeeze a little old college in there’, and that’s where St Clement’s is.”

Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Susan Grossey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Ostler will be published in September. For more on Susan Grossey, visit susangrossey.com.

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